Senestra is the new project from Alan Rider and Puppy38. It's a deep dive into The Stanford Prison Experiment that captivated the world back in 1971. The story is told through use of vintage analogue equipment paired with modern production techniques. The result is a journey that flourishes in the dark experimental realms and compliments the very themes you will read about as you go forward with this article.
Hello again Alan. We seem to find ourselves here every few years. Of course I am always good with that. So, we've chatted about Stress, Dance Naked and 2 books. This time we are going to explore your latest project Senestra, that centers around The Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971. I remember learning about this in school, and how fascinating it was. Please tell us some background to the experiment and how this lead to the Senestra project?
AR: Yes, we do don’t we? Feels like it’s becoming a bit of a habit! Like you, I also read about the Stanford Prison Experiment many years ago, along with the Milgram experiment, and found both of them fascinating in the ways they demonstrated the depths to which humans can descend if they are instructed to by an authority figure or placed into a highly controlled environment like a prison. There was an element of artificiality about both experiments of course. Milgram used actors who pretended to be given electric shocks by the unsuspecting volunteers in the study and faked what would have been fatal levels of shock. The Stanford experiment was run by Psychologist Dr Philip Zimbardo who also took the role of Prison Governor, so was directing some of the interactions himself. Neither experiment was ethical (as it traumatised its subjects) or completely scientifically valid, but both amply demonstrated what happens (in the words of one of the Stanford volunteers) when you put good people in a bad place. In the case of the Stanford Experiment, it took just 6 days of what was intended to be a 2 week experiment for the subjects behaviour to degenerate to such a dangerous extent that it had to be halted early. I find that both incredibly dark and incredibly interesting.
There have been plenty of books, documentaries and a few films made about the Stanford Prison Experiment, but to my knowledge, no one had attempted to capture the mood of that experience in sound. There was a band that used the name, but they were more Alt Rock and didn’t touch the subject itself. Given the subject matter, it could only ever be a dark soundtrack. No lyrics would do it justice, and using a traditional song structure would just be trite. The closest parallel in style I’d say would be John Carpenter, but musically, the Stanford album only references that musically in a couple of places. Senestra is a collaboration between myself and a Vienna-based musician, producer and visual artist originally from Austin, Texas, who goes by the name of Puppy38 and has been producing and releasing a rather vast catalogue of dark ambient/experimental electronic music as Hiroshimabend since 1997 on his own Opiumdenpluto label. Composing across distance is commonplace now, but is still not that easy. I had a few ideas of how I wanted this to work and have a lot of vintage synths here, many left over from Stress and Dance Naked, so we decided that I would record phrases and tracks using those and send them to Puppy38 who would then add digital textures of his own to them and do the production and mastering.
We then bounced different mixes back and forth and argued the toss until we agreed and that was a track done! There had to be six, six minute tracks for all six days (666!) that gradually got darker as we got towards the end. We added Opening Credits, Prologue and Epilogue tracks also, which took it to vinyl album length, which was what we wanted. It didn’t take that long to do the recording to be honest and I was keen not to sequence anything to keep an organic feel so played everything by hand.
We wanted the sleeve artwork to reflect the subject so used actual images from the experiment, and also created a special edition that came in a CD sized prison cell (which we can talk about later)! We are both pretty pleased with how it has all turned out.
P38: Oddly enough, I have a stack of thick books leftover from a project I did a few years ago (part of a limited edition hidden-compartment book/CD release). I was about to donate them to a local shop here in Vienna. One of them happened to be ‘Psychologie’, a German pressing of a book by Dr. Philip Zimbardo…so I took that as a good omen and kept it.
As an artist you have created music in many styles. The music of Senestra seems move in a very experimental direction. How does the music parallel the behaviour of the oppressors and the oppressed? Is there any separation or just a constant blend open to interpretation?
AR: Although Senestra is certainly producing dark experimental music, there are some definite parallels to what I was doing with Stress way back in the 1980s, even down to some of the instruments used, and Hiroshimabend definitely has a strong pedigree in experimental music too, so it’s a natural move really. I was a part of the same early industrial music scene that produced bands like SPK, Attrition and Nurse with Wound after all.
In terms of getting the music to parallel the experiment, that was quite difficult to do. We used a few cut ups, but not many really, and went more for creating a mood, which started out relatively light and got heavier and darker as it went. We gave titles for each of the days that referenced the stages in the experiment. At the start of the experiment the volunteer students were arrested by real local police and taken to the fake ‘prison’ at Stanford University, so we called that ‘The Beginning’ and its quite a light track. By the time we get to Day 4 ‘Division’ (where the ‘prisoners’ began to rebel), or Day 5 Visitation, where relatives were allowed to visit and were shocked by the condition the inmates were in, the music naturally is a lot darker. You can’t be too literal though. So you will hear a heart beat drum pattern and morse code in there, but no police sirens. It is open to interpretation too. Some of the sounds are just highly processed scraped guitar strings, or guttural noises wrenched out of my vintage synths. Others are more string-like sounds from a Juno synth. Everything is mixed, chopped up and produced by Puppy38 so it all makes sense! There is a lot beneath the surface for those who want to listen.
In many ways the ideas are as important as the music these days, as people are buying into the experience and concept rather than just buying a record. It may be that not everyone listens to it in one go, or even gets to the end at all. Yet others will play parts or all of it over many more times. Starting that thinking process about the limits (or lack of) of control, especially now, is the aim. If we have achieved that, I think we can justify the effort. Even this interview is a part of that overall process.
P38: I agree with Alan, in that while most people these days are used to listening to tracks, there is
definitely a resurgence of the appreciation of the album that tells a story, and is intended to be listened to as an experience.
From a person such as yourself with such a rich history with music, were there ever any lingering thoughts or things you wanted to accomplish? You have released your 2 books documenting your fanzine days, both Stress and Dance Naked have been reissued. What's left for Alan Rider? Does Senestra fill any voids or is it just a natural progression to keep creating?
AR: What you have described are releases/re-releases of things I have done previously. Nothing wrong with that, as its my history and there is a big interest in that period of music still, but we are almost done with that now. There will be another, final, vinyl re-issue of the first two Stress albums as a box set on German label Vinyl on Demand. Stress were recently included on Peripheral Minimal Records ‘Prophecy + Progress: UK Electronics 1978 - 1990 Vols. I + II’ compilation of early industrial music and there is still unreleased material which will need to surface on other compilations. I am also in the middle of writing a new large format book on Third Mind Records, who were behind Front Line Assembly, In The Nursery, and Attrition amongst many others. That will come out on Fourth Dimension who published my other books and are co-releasing the Senestra album with Adventures in Reality and Opiumdenpluto. Adventures in Reality is starting up as a label again, initially for limited cassette and downloads and then see where that takes us. Senestra is a new project though between myself and Puppy38, who is having a lot of success himself with Hiroshimabend. At the time of writing he has just supported the Legendary Pink Dots in Vienna and has another big show lined up at a festival in Poland near the end of the year. So we will fit Senestra in around all of those. Its good to keep things moving.
The urge to keep creating is certainly strong but I just wish it didn’t take so long for things to come out! Partly that’s due to supply problems still, plus the added pressures of the Cost of Living Crisis pushing up production costs. Its also driven by the need to get pre-orders before pressing to make the sums work out! As you get older you want things to move a bit faster though as there is more of a sense of urgency, not least because it looks like we might all get wiped out in a nuclear war after all. I thought we had done with all that, but clearly not. That might even see us all off before the collapse of the world’s climate does! That is why I subtitle Senestra as ‘Soundtracks for the coming apocalypse’ It sounds flippant, but could well be accurate!
There is a very limited edition version of the CD that has prison bars as part of the CD packaging. I know from Adventures In Reality you like to throw in little extras with the zine. The prison bars are more than extras I guess, but it's your way of giving that extra piece to compliment the theme. How did you come up with the idea and who if anyone helped with the design?
AR: That idea was all Puppy38s. He also did all of the design on the CD, 3D printing of the prison cell cases and fitting the metal bars in. He is a clever chap! The idea is that the CD is imprisoned in the same way that the experiment’s subjects were and you need to release it to play it. It’s a very limited edition though as they are really difficult and quite expensive to make, so it will be a bit of a collectors item almost immediately. There is a standard edition too.
P38: Guilty as charged…the moment Alan approached me about the project, I was figuring out how to put the CD ‘behind bars’. I’ve done a few other specially packaged releases which have been well-received, so it was natural to just go to that realm of thought immediately.
Will Senestra continue to explore the darker realms of psychology? Or this a one and done project?
AR: Senestra is an ongoing project between Puppy38 and myself so we are not done yet. Whether we continue to delve into the darkest recesses of psychology, or branch out into other sources of inspiration isn’t clear at this stage. It is safe to say though that we will still fall under the umbrella of Dark Electronics, or at least experimental electronics – which is quite a broad area. We may work with others on the scene too. There are lots of possibilities as between us we know quite a few people.
P38: I already have a few ideas that I’ve filed for use on future Senestra projects, at least until the dust settles with ‘Stanford’. In a way, my input on this first album was based more upon what I felt resonated in me from what Alan had already completed. When things started really taking shape, I asked for more and continued to work from that. One track was actually composed around some “stragglers”…sounds that were leftover elements from a bunch of tracks he sent me that he said I could ignore. But they sounded so good that I pulled them in, edited them a bit and built atmospherics, glitchy noises and other samples around them and they morphed into something that kept with the theme…sounding ‘of a piece’, if you will.
Thanks to Alan and Puppy38 for their insight to this wonderful new project. You can purchase both the standard edition and the prison bar edition >>>here<<<.